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With Jails from Buffalo to New York City in Crisis, Bill to Strengthen Jail Oversight Falters in Albany

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Contact: Yonah Zeitz, yonah@katalcenter.org • 347-201-2769

Follow on Twitter/X @KatalCenter • #ShutRikers #CutShutInvestNY

With Jails from Buffalo to New York City in Crisis, Bill to Strengthen Jail Oversight Falters in Albany

Community Groups & Advocates Vow to Keep Up Fight to Expand and Enhance the State Commission of Correction 

Albany, NY:  On Saturday, the New York State Assembly wrapped up the 2024 legislative session without final passage of S5877A(Salazar) / A5709A (Gallagher) – bipartisan legislation to expand and strengthen the State Commission of Correction. The measure would increase jail oversight and address the ongoing crises at local jails across the state, including the notorious and deadly Rikers Island Jail Complex.

After a focused push by community groups throughout the state, the NY State Senate passed the bill late last week. In the Assembly, the bill cleared numerous committees, but the clock ran out before it could be passed on the Assembly floor. This timely legislation increases the number of members on the State Commission of Correction from three to nine. It also codifies the manner of confirmation of such members to diversify the commission.

Movement in the legislature this session follows investigative reports by New York Focus, which highlighted how, from 2018 to 2023, major problems at jails across the state—including Onondaga, Rockland, and Dutchess counties—dragged on for years unresolved. In 2018, the SCOC released a report about the state’s worst jails, and Rikers Island topped the list with leadership failures, flagrantly unsafe conditions, and more. Yet, years later, little to no action has been taken by this commission on their findings and recommendations. It’s clear that reforms are needed to enhance and strengthen the Commission’s capacity to fulfill its constitutional mandate: to ensure that state prisons and local jails are “safe, stable, and humane.”

Community groups and impacted community members were in Albany in the final weeks of the session, demanding that Albany do more to address the various crises unfolding in city jails across the state, from Buffalo and the Southern Tier to New York City’s Rikers Island Jail Complex. 

Quotes from elected officials, community groups, and directly impacted people: 

Senator Julia Salazar, Prime Bil Sponsor, said: “I’m frustrated this important bill wasn’t enacted during the past session, but our trajectory is promising. Just as the Senate approved our SCOC reforms, the Assembly was on the verge of doing the same. This fight isn’t over, we have the momentum on our side going into the next session, and our overarching mission remains clear: from Rikers Island to Upstate Correctional Facility, from Green Haven to Attica, we must do everything we can to minimize inhumanity and suffering in our state’s jails and prisons.”

Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, Prime Bill Sponsor, said: “Although I am disappointed that A5709 is not being sent to the Governor this year, I am proud of the progress this coalition has made. This bill, which would mark a dramatic step forward in New York’s system for corrections oversight, passed the Senate and through three committees in the Assembly, where it was on track to pass before session ended. Rikers Island remains in crisis, and we will be back next year to pass this bill and to champion every other measure that can help prevent the loss of another life in a New York jail or prison.”

Yonah Zeitz, Advocacy Director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice: “The legislature running out of time to deliver this common-sense, bipartisan legislation to Governor Hochul’s desk is deeply disappointing. Jails across our state, from Buffalo to New York City, are in crisis, and community groups and directly impacted New Yorkers fought throughout the year to pass legislation that would strengthen and enhance the State Commission of Correction as a mechanism of heightened oversight and accountability. We’re grateful to our bill sponsors, Assembly Member Emily Gallagher and State Senator Julia Salazar, our community partners, and our impacted members who pushed until the last minute to advance this much-needed reform. Our members – who have loved ones currently incarcerated in jails and prisons across the state – know better than anyone that lives are at stake. Next session, lawmakers in Albany must step up to address this crisis, and we will not let up the pressure to make that happen. 

Since Albany could not increase jail oversight this session, the call for federal receivership at Rikers remains ever more important and timely. Rikers must be closed. Until that happens, the City Council must take immediate action to save lives. We urge the City Council to swiftly pass Resolution 183, which calls for a federal receiver to improve conditions until Rikers is shut down.”

Tawana Atkins, Member of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, said: “The horrors that people detained in New York State jails and prisons experience are truly horrific. My son, who is incarcerated at Rikers Island, has been beaten at the hands of corrupt correctional officers simply for asking for medical attention. It breaks my heart that we live in a society that allows for this to happen, I shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of my kid. Our communities desperately need jail oversight. I am truly disappointed that the legislature did not pass the legislation to expand the State Commission of Correction (S.5877 / A. 5709), which is a necessary step to keep people safe who are detained at a state correctional facility and local jails. We need this bill to be passed for so many reasons. I, like many mothers out there, almost lost my son in this horrible jail system; my son has schizophrenia. The government is not addressing the very real problems surrounding mental illness and fails to provide meaningful care. This leaves our children vulnerable to incarceration. They choose to keep putting it on the back burner.  How many mothers, sons, and daughters must be lost in the system before we get help? I myself have tried to get help on my own, and I was told when my son was age 16 that I could not get the help that he needed until he committed a crime. This must stop. We need to address this serious issue. I have tried to do everything to protect my son from the system. I am a single parent, and we need the help of our elected officials to pass this bill! I will continue fighting to make sure that they prioritize passing this legislation in the next session.”

Lah Franklin, Member of the Katal Center, said: “Rikers Island is in complete chaos. Rikers is not healthy and safe for any human being and should be immediately shut down! I remember when I was sent to Rikers, I was terrified and did my best to prepare for the absolute worst but still praying for the best. I don’t think anything can prepare you for what you experience there. I am just grateful to have made it out alive. I feel for those who are currently at Rikers and whose lives are at risk. We have lost too many lives at Rikers. Since Mayor Eric Adams took office, at least 31 people have died in New York City Jails. The city must shut down Rikers. In 2018, the State Commission of Correction (SCOC) released a report about the worst jails in the state, and Rikers was at the top of the list. The commission concluded that ‘it is now time for the Commission to examine steps to expeditiously close Rikers and to ensure that the constitutional rights of inmates and staff are protected.’ This mandate must be revisited as the crisis at Rikers worsens. This is precisely why the state legislature should act quickly and not further delay the passage of the SCOC bill. They must expand and bolster this commission to ensure they fulfill their purpose of shutting down correctional facilities found to be out of compliance with maintaining ‘safe, stable, and humane’ conditions. I ask the legislature to convene a special session to pass this reform as soon as possible.” 

Danielle Lynn Shanks-Efuntosin, member of the Katal Center, said: “Far too many lives have been lost at the hands of this monstrous carceral system. In NYC, since Mayor Eric Adams took office, at least 31 people have died in city jails. I have a son who was incarcerated at Rikers, where he was exposed to horrific conditions. For months, my son wore the same suit with mildew stains. My son had to wash his own undergarments in a small sink in his personal cell. While at Rikers, he was harassed and threatened by other incarcerated people. Additionally, he would not receive his medical for his medical condition on a regular schedule, which impacted him gravely. I reported this matter and many other issues with 311 and DOC constituent’s report. I’ve never received any responses regarding any of my concerns from Rikers Island; my son has not been able to properly wash his clothes in over a month. 

That is why it is time for the state government to take action and protect the constitutional rights of incarcerated people. I am upset that the legislature did not pass the legislation to bolster and expand the State Commission of Correction ( S.5877 / A. 5709). This much-needed legislation will increase jail and prison oversight to ensure that the constitutional rights of incarcerated people are protected. This would mean that parents across the state would not need to worry sick about the well-being of their child. I implore the state legislature to ensure this bill passes swiftly at the next session, if not sooner.”

Ziyadah Amatul-Matin, Leader at the Katal Center, said: “New York State desperately needs jail and prison oversight. As someone with a loved one who is incarcerated, we worry constantly about their well-being because their basic needs are not being met. I worry daily about the well-being of my son, and it shouldn’t be like that. It saddens me that the bill to bolster and expand the State Commission of Corrections did not pass this legislative session. I hope that next year the legislature prioritizes this much-needed reform.” 

Anthony Maund, Leader of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice: “No one should have to fear for their lives while they are incarcerated. Yet, this is the reality for the majority of New Yorkers detained in New York State jails and prisons. I have had many situations where a correctional officer has been extremely heavy-handed and used physical force on me. I have filed grievances for these cases that were never heard, and there was no type of accountability. I feared for my safety while incarcerated and felt hopeless. Now more than ever, we need the state to pass S.5877A / A. 5709A, which expands and bolsters the State Commission of Correction to ensure they fulfill their purpose of ensuring that all of these correctional facilities are humane and do not violate people’s constitutional rights. I implore the legislature to not wait till next year but to pass this reform in an urgent special session.”

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